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Backpass: Seattle-Colorado is a heavyweight fight

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There were goals. There was parity. There was physicality. There were ‘antics’. Backpass breaks it down with a flurry of tactics.

MLS: Western Conference Championship-Colorado Rapids at Seattle Sounders Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of Rapids games throughout the year have been fodder for the hardcore fan only. A fair amount of Rapids matches have been droll 1-0 affairs, with a penchant for tightly constricted play in the final third, and not a lot of risks taken by the Rapids. If you want beautiful attacking soccer, we ain’t got a lot of that. Colorado had 11 games that ended 1-0, and they won 8 of those. Many of those matches were kind of snoozefests, with the ‘Pids grinding for 75+ minutes and scoring late to send fans home happy. This was not one of those matches.

Seattle and Colorado traded punches, in the hackneyed and fairly overused cliche of sportswriters from time immemorial, like two heavyweight fighters launching haymakers at each other. In this match, that metaphor seemed pretty apt, considering the stakes were high, and the battle was fairly even. The two teams both had a number of good chances. Seattle had 15 shots on 9 key passes, while the Rapids had 9 shots and 9 key passes. Possession was pretty even, with Seattle beating Colorado 53% to 47%. And there were, at least for a Rapids game, a lot of goals. In scoring the first goal, they put the pressure on Seattle, who now come to Colorado with a real need for a road goal to ensure that the away goals rule doesn’t bite them in the keister.

Here’s some analysis of the minutia.

First: Let’s just admire this goal, especially the dummy

Jermaine’s one-time feed is phenomenal here; he also had a one-timed 40 yard pass to a breaking Sebastian Le Toux at 22’. But the artistry here is clearly in Shkëlzen Gashi’s dummy. So, so intelligent. He knows Kevin Doyle is behind him. He knows he can draw both defenders away from Doyle. This is another example of why it feels morally wrong that a good dummy doesn’t earn a player an assist. Oh well.

It also gets at something I said in my tactical preview: Gashi and Jermaine Jones look for each other on the field and are great at combining with chemistry.

Doyle finishing for his first MLS playoff goal is also a nice little redemption after two so-so years as a DP striker with only 11 goals in 40 games. We’ll talk a little later about what twist the Rapids have given him to try and find a new dimension to his game.

Seattle turns the tables a little on the Rapids

Colorado have spent much of 2016 defensively pressing high in order to produce great results, generating midfield turnovers that become goals. They didn’t find many opportunities to press in this one. Instead, Seattle turned the tables and pressed the Rapids high, and the results were nearly disastrous.

Exhibit A:

Nelson Valdes, Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro, Erik Friberg, and Osvaldo Alonso all press aggressively and effectively, while Axel Sjöberg has a couple less-than-stellar touches, and Zac MacMath had to go switch-foot to play it out, and Gashi had a long touch, and in the end, Colorado gives it away at midfield to a surging Seattle rush. Not good.

Exhibit B:

Here is, basically, the same thing. Axel under pressure coughs up a terrible ball right to Lodeiro, who fortunately fires a curling shot just over the bar.

Even though the high press didn’t result in a turnover for a goal against Colorado, it does have another big other effect. Mainly, it forces the Rapids to lob long balls from the keeper instead of building from the back. Building from the back has two distinct advantages. First, it is a more time-consuming effort, which is valuable for a Rapids team thatwould really prefer to get a goal and kill off the game slowly. Second, it is more reliable, as a bevy of short ground passes have a higher rate of completion into the final third than one long bomb. When Colorado is denied the option of playing out of the back, their only alternative is to launch long balls from Zac MacMath with a lower success rate. Seattle gets the ball more often, and at midfield.

Will Seattle try and run aggressively at Colorado? Will this work on Sunday in Denver’s mile high altitude? Or will they back off a little, knowing that this kind of harried, high energy approach could backfire against a team with a built-in training advantage? I don’t know. I do know that the Rapids need to be better prepared for a high press, because they nearly lost the game on these errors on Tuesday.

Lodeiro vs. Burch, Round 1

Marc Burch and Nicolas Lodeiro got into it a little in leg 1. Both moments of the fracas are gif’ed below.

In that first clip, trips, retains the ball, and gets up, raising his arm and reaching back, maybe to shield the ball from the onrushing Lodeiro, maybe to intentionally smack the little Uruguayan. Either way, Lodeiro rolled around on the floor for sixty seconds, clutching his cheek and sobbing like this is Serie A and he’s an Italian soap opera star. Burch’s verbal response does not require professional-grade lip reading skills. He elaborated more in the locker room to Daniel Boniface:

“He kicked me after a play,” Burch said. “And I stuck my arm up and he acted like I broke his nose, which I didn’t even touch him in the face. Yeah, I didn’t know he was like that. I know he’s a great player, but interesting antics that he’s got as well.”

You can read Boniface’s entire piece here. Burch was visibly pissed off when he gave that quote to Boniface (I was there). Later, of course, Burch would be the one to step in front of Lodeiro in the box to get the ball; Lodeiro goes down; penalty. It looks suspicious for sure, and Lodeiro’s earlier manufactured theatrics lead me to think that he’s inclined to embellish.

The Rapids didn’t really succeed in containing Lodeiro on the night. He had 5 shotsin the game, 3 on target; 4 key passes; drew a penalty and subsequently scored from the penalty spot, so a pretty good evening overall. Against FC Dallas in their first leg at CenturyLink, Lodeiro had 2 goals on 3 shots but only 1 key pass. In the second leg, Nico had 1 goal, 3 key passes. I’m not exactly sure what was wrong with the Rapids approach in their game that gave Lodeiro so much room to work. It seemed like Lodeiro was so free to pop up anywhere: far left, far right, center; that Rapids defenders just weren’t expecting him. The Armchair Analyst covered that angle pretty well, if you’re interested. All I know is, its a problem that needs solving, and the Rapids won’t have Sam Cronin to help with the riddle.

Marc Burch is most definitinely primed for the challenge to subdue Lodeiro for round two, by the sound of things.

Sam Cronin, Suspended for Sunday

Sam Cronin was 11th in MLS in fouls with 54 to go with 6 yellow cards in the regular season. Which isn’t that bad! He was, however, the first player in the MLS playoffs to be suspended for yellow card accumulation after a foul on Erik Friberg (two other players drew a second yellow, but their teams were eliminated before they had a chance to play again.)

Sam’s first tackle above was a game saver: he came across the field with Seattle on a four-man rush to break up the play. The second slide is less-good, mostly because Sam rolls right into the path of Friberg. I’m not convinced Cronin made a whiff of contact at all, but he looks like he’s going at Friberg, and so he gets the card. Boo.

Without Cronin, Pablo Mastroeni has a couple of options with how to line up in midfield in his absence.

Option 1: Azira, Jones; Gashi, Doyle, Hairston/Le Toux

Option 2: Powers, Jones; Gashi, Doyle, Hairston/Le Toux

Option 3: Powers, Azira; Gashi, Jones, Hairston/Le Toux

That first option is your most defensive, which, if you are mostly concerned about preventing an away goal for the first 70 minutes until Seattle tires, is a good bet. But Seattle is not LA; they aren’t old, and counting on them to tire might be a fool’s errand. Option 2 gives you two defensive midfielders with great passing skills, but Powers and Jones have never played together as the two d-mids, so it would be a roll of the dice. Option 3 is my favorite, because it gives you the passing of Powers, the attacking of JJ, and you still have Azira to cover your butt if need be. But it either pushes Doyle to the bench or up top instead of Badji, and Doyle’s started at attacking mid for the last two matches. I’m guessing Pablo goes Option 2.

Is Doyle our new-found attacking midfielder?

After underperforming a bit as the lone striker in the Rapids 4-2-3-1 formation, Kevin Doyle is maybe starting to find his feet as different kind of number 10 attacking midfielder. He isn’t a marauding on-the-ball presence that will draw in defenders, like Montreal’s Ignacio Piatti, or a perfect passing midfield maestro, like Portland’s Diego Valeri. He’s more of a second forward that’s really good at dropping back to receive the pass. The Rapids have gotten a little better at figuring out how to play in this offense: it often means that, in attack, Doyle sucks up closer to Badji, and that means the wings, Sebastian Le Toux and Shkëlzen Gashi, tuck in a little tighter, or have more freedom to roam, especially when the Rapids push their fullbacks up in attack too.

Here is Doyle’s map from leg 2 against LA, his first as a midfielder.

Kevin Doyle Map 11-6—16 v LAG

It ain’t great. There are two inverted triangles at midfield where he beat Baggio Husidic on a dribble at 6’, and a key pass where he laid off a dink to Gashi for a standard Gashi thunderbolt at 23’, but other than that, it’s a lot of red in the final third, as he wasn’t able to find Le Toux or Badji or Gashi with the pass. He was 32 for 48 in passes for a less-than-stellar 66.7%.

Here’s his map from Tuesday night against Seattle.

Doyle map 11-22-16 v SEA. Better.

Better! His passing was 33/36, for a 91.7% rate, 2 key passes, and 1 goal. Most importantly, there’s little red in the final third like there is above versus LA. Doyle is holding the ball and recirculating to Cronin or Jones to pick out the pass, then moving up to look to poach in the box, something that is his forte.

I think a big reason is the Rapids found a little groove with sophomore big man Dominque Badji up top. Here’s Badji’s map from Tuesday in Seattle.

Badji passing map, 11-22-16

You might look at that and say that it’s unimpressive, and that the overall lack of touches - 2 shots, 22 passes - tells us he’s isolated up high. That’s not what I see. What I see is eight backwards facing arrows just outside of the final third. In each of those passes Badji is back to goal with a defender draped on him. He then pings the ball backwards to Doyle, Jones, or Gashi while they are on the run, facing forward. That’s a huge thing, because those second runs have speed, momentum, and vision to run into spaces that Badji creates by sucking in the defender. Good stuff.

Badji wasn’t effective at turning to beat his defender, usually Chad Marshall, but he did allow the Rapids to create offense with above-average holdup play. This is why I say that Doyle operates kind of as a second striker.

This is going to sound weird, because I haven’t been a huge fan of Kevin Doyle’s work this year. But I really hope Mastroeni plays Doyle with Badji in these same roles on Sunday. They look like they’re on the verge of figuring it all out.

Going forward into next season, where Doyle fits is less clear. He isn’t producing at the rate a DP slot would warrant, but I was fed a tip that Doyle is not going to count as a DP anymore: the club is using TAM to pay down his reported $1.1 million to a non-DP level. He isn’t currently listed as a DP for the club. That means that next year, he might just be an expensive offensive option instead of a must-play top earning DP. I’m ok with that, if the Rapids don’t move him in the winter transfer window. That said, he’s kind of playing like an off-brand Wayne Rooney right now: a former striker, trying to find his feet in midfield, and not doing a fully convincing job of it. Cross your fingers and hope it works.

Oh Stephen Frei... is not real good...

Oh Stephen Frei is not real good

I would rather have Zac MacMath

Oh Stephen Frei is not real good

Stephen Frei was not tested on Tuesday. But he did nearly let a backpass get into his own net.

...

In contrast, Zac MacMath saved the day twice in a span of 60 seconds.

...

If we have another game that goes to PKs on Sunday, and oh my God I’m not sure Denver-area cardiologists are prepared to deal with that situation, I would rather have Zac MacMath between the pipes. He’s been stellar in the absence of Tim Howard, who traveled with the team to Seattle while on crutches with his groin injury.

I really hope C38 gives Frei the verbal what-for during the game (minus the p-chant, which just makes us look stupid.) Keeper play is one area in which I believe we have a clear advantage over Seattle. Both teams are evenly matched, so it will be the little things that decide whether Seattle or Colorado get a shot to raise the MLS Cup this year.